John Longworth is Co Chairman of Leave means Leave, an entrepreneur and was formerly Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce.
In the run up to Christmas, we learned that the CBI was reporting manufacturing order books at a 30-year high and export order books at a 20-year high. Forbes magazine reported that the UK is the best place in the world to do business. The Bank of England said that the City of London is Europe’s Banker and advocated what amounted to unilateral financial “passporting” into London. The EU chief negotiator declared that any transition period must end in 2020 (hurrah!). There was an agreement on a move to the next phase of negotiations with the EU.
Should we feel optimistic?
Well, we also witnessed Lord Heseltine declaring that leaving the EU is worse than having Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. The establishment, by definition, favour the status quo because the status quo favours them. The establishment are appalled and angry that the population have had the effrontery to depart from the norm. After all, those who believe that politics is the application and exercise of power and that democracy is about the manipulation of the people had a terrible shock in June 2016 – when the silent majority spoke and said they were prepared to take a risk for a better future, to shake up the status quo. Suddenly, the majority became the radicals and allied themselves with the many entrepreneurs, natural disrupters and risk takers, who supported the Leave campaign and still do.
Seeing the “glass half empty”, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) establishment this week declared that it is vital that the British Government obtain trade relations with the EU as soon as possible in order that companies can continue to import from the EU without tariffs and without disruption. At one stroke this undermines the UK’s negotiating position, since it demands a single outcome, presumably at any cost – something that no business would ever do in a negotiation. It completely ignores the massive export and current account benefits of a competitive currency, and also is blind to the ability of the UK to unilaterally remove tariffs on imports once we leave the EU. Most astonishingly of all, it runs completely contrary to the campaign the BCC ran for years and which was always Number One on the current Director General’s agenda: the demand from business for deregulation, something which is only possible if we leave the EU.
In the run-up to the holidays I participated in a Sky News review. In one sentence the presenter mentioned “cliff edge” and “crashing out” – I had to correct him, and this at the end of 2017, when Parliament has voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU.
If we listened to the doom-mongers and nay-sayers of the political, business and media establishment, we would all believe that the glass is half empty.
The truth is that this negotiation, the extraction of the UK from the EU, has little to do with Brussels, but is a domestic battle within the the UK. In fact, it is a sort of glorious revolution. The EU is almost irrelevant to the outcome, as Britain will be freer and economically more prosperous if we get a trade arrangement with the EU and also if we don’t, provided the Government adopts the right policies and maximises the opportunities and freedoms that Brexit affords. But that means over turning the status quo, not salvaging it as our Chancellor is desperate to do. It means defying the status quo establishment and that will be the crux and heart of the political discourse for the next few years.
Most ironic in all this is the extent to which Corbyn’s Labour Party is at the heart of the pro-status-quo establishment. Poorer people in Britain could be so much better off if we were to remove external tariffs, either unilaterally, or via trade deals, especially in the areas of food, clothing and footwear, but shamefully Labour does not want this. They are happy to see ordinary UK taxpayers fund farm subsidies for country land owners in the UK Rich List and then, to add insult to injury, forcing those same ordinary folk to pay an average 20 per cent more for their basic needs, clothing and food, in order to protect the monopoly profits of those same rich individuals – you could not make it up!
We live in a topsy turvy time, but we should be optimistic. Notwithstanding that the Government have been too ready to trade freedoms for a deal, the Prime Minister now has the opportunity to leverage what we have offered in order to obtain a reasonable trade arrangement. The ostensible cost of this, at upward of £40 billion, say, paid over time as and when it arises, is a big number (perhaps too big) but it is a small price to pay for our freedom. It is also far less than we would have paid by remaining in the EU.
The key is that the Prime Minister must not be afraid to walk away without a trade arrangement. Most trade in the world and most UK international trade occurs within global rules, within WTO rules of trade. Crucially, we must not give away our newly-won freedoms and we must be able to utilise these during any transition period.
We are in a strong place right now. The Prime Minister needs to recognise this. Provided she does, we will undoubtedly be better off, whatever the outcome of the negotiations with the EU
It is also axiomatic that the institutions of government, and parliaments in particular, gather powers and power to themselves. Just as the institutions of the EU have become so powerful as to be on the verge of a supranational state, so the UK Parliament will do the same as it realises its new status. Over time its power will inevitably grow, whatever the outcome of the negotiations – ironically, we saw this in the recent actions of the “rebels”. Yet another reason to be cheerful.
So, the answer is that we Leavers, and that should mean all of us, should certainly be optimistic. It will not be long before our independent, liberated, prosperous and free country becomes to define the new status quo.
January 2nd, 2018: Conservative Home